Jordan's Note: This story comes to me from a trans* woman who wanted to share her story. If you'd like to contribute your own story to the TGNC conversation here at trans.report, please don't hesitate to contact us and let us know. All stories are told to the extent you feel comfortable sharing the details of your experiences, changing names as needed to help protect your sense of safety.
The names of those mentioned in this story have been changed to protect those involved.
Meet Shawna -- a transgender Kansas City sex worker.
Shawna is a 27 year-old transgender woman living in Kansas City. She contacted me through some friends not long ago to talk about her life. It's mostly as you'd expect:
Shawna: I work 40 hours a week at a local coffee place serving customers. People are pretty nice to me, generally speaking, and I get along okay -- there are just a few customer incidents every week, but people are mostly in and out with their coffee so I don't have to deal with it too much.
It sounds normal enough, right? Most of us wake up and go to our jobs. We work a full day and then come home to our hobbies or friends or family. Not Shawna, though. Shawna is engaged in a survival strategy, working late nights as a sex worker or cam girl to make her ends meet.
trans.report (tr): We've spoken with some sex workers here in Kansas City. Do you want to talk about your experience?
Shawna: It's not too bad, mostly.
Shawna: It's like every job, right? Good customers and bad customers. I try not to think about it, honestly.
tr: Because it's sex work?
Shawna: No, not like that. It's really good money sometimes. Others, not so much. I try not to think about it because it's exhausting and I feel like most people don't like their jobs these days. It's not different that I hate my job just because it's sex work.
tr: It's interesting that you say that, "just because it's sex work." Do you have any friends or family that know about the work you're doing?
Shawna: Some friends know I have sex for money, yeah, but it's not really a big deal to them. I don't talk to my family anymore so I don't really care what they think either.
Next, we spoke about what Shawna's nights usually look like when she's working late.
tr: Is it okay if we talk about what your nights usually look like as a sex worker?
Shawna: A lot of nights, I imagine they look similar to lots of other girls. I come home, have some dinner, and then I go about my life. I'm not always out working -- sometimes I stay home, too.
tr: You invite your customers into your home?
Shawna: Sometimes. There are a lot of places that see some of us girls coming in late at night and won't hesitate to call the cops.
tr: How does it usually work?
Shawna: There really isn't a usual. Sometimes they'll text me to come over, sometimes they can't get the house free because their wife or whoever is home, but I do a lot of business over my cell phone.
tr: You don't find that dangerous?
Shawna: Sleeping outside at night in the cold is worse.
Marketing professionals will tell you because Shawna is a Millennial, she finds her phone almost invaluable. This situation is different: Shawna has a phone that's more important to her than almost anything else, including her own safety, risking it to protect her ability to pay bills and buy groceries.
tr: Are you worried about your phone at all? Like, what if it breaks or something? It seems super important to your ability to feed yourself and stuff.
Shawna: Yeah, that's true. I can't afford much, but you can buy a cheap smartphone just walking into Best Buy these days. As long as the little chip in my phone works, I can put it in any new phone and be ready to go again.
tr: How do you mean?
Shawna: My best customers' names and numbers are stored on the chip. It's the only way I can protect myself -- to know how to get a hold of the people that will pay me for my body.
tr: Right, but what if these people find out you're holding on to their identifying information?
Shawna: They won't. I'd fight someone over my phone, and not just in the drunken "hey, I'll totally fight you" kind of way.
tr: Has a client ever tried to take it from you?
Shawna: Once. I didn't see him again after.
tr: How come?
Shawna: He was a threat. I just avoid anything that threatens my ability to feed myself now. It's easier sometimes.
Shawna got quiet for a bit, after which we continued.
Shawna: Sorry, I had a cam appointment.
tr: Do you just do that on your own?
Shawna: It's a mix of both. When you're a cam girl, you're not allowed to ask for money outside the cam network where you're working. Some guys will just be so insistent, there are clever ways to get around the rules.
Like Skype, for example? You can just have your own video account there and then guys who want private, one-on-one time with you can just schedule to call when it matches their schedule. Since it's your own work, you can even set your own rates, which are usually way higher rates than cam networks and go directly into my pocket instead of the cam people's.
tr: Do you do a lot of this work?
Shawna: As much as I can get my hands on -- like I said, they pay way better.
tr: But you still use the normal cam networks?
Shawna: You bet. It's super easy to sit there and wait for a guy to tip you enough tokens or credits to talk privately.
tr: Credits? Tips?
Shawna: The websites work like this: people pay for credits they can tip models. They do this because credit translations make people feel like they're spending less and less money while still giving them tons of room to be flexible tipping -- but if unless it's thousands of credits, I'm honestly not interested.
tr: Why's that?
Shawna: It's pennies for a dollar. Literally. Every credit I get tipped is only ten cents, which means I need way more of them to equal out what I can get from sleeping with some guy in my bedroom or visiting him at his house when his wife's out drinking. Once you get set up in a city, there will always be people who want more than the cams can give them.
Shawna's a busy girl. She had work to do, so she left for a little while. Because I'm a night owl, I was able to ask her a few more questions when she was free again. This time, we talked about her frustrations about doing sex work when she already had a full-time job.
Shawna: Still here? Sorry. Work again.
tr: That's totally fine--I'm always up anyway. ;)
I wanted to ask you about one more thing before I end up falling asleep here if that's okay with you.
tr: You mentioned that you do this work in your off time after your normal job. What about finding a job that pays you enough to get out of sex work altogether?
Shawna: I've tried--am trying? Still trying. It's not like I want to do this forever, although that's what it feels like it might be some days. No, it's just like, people in Kansas City know that trans people exist, but it doesn't feel like they want to actually help us out.
Even a lot of the agencies patting their backs here in Kansas City feel the same way, honestly. People say they want to help us avoid at-risk behavior, but here we are just the same, even when they're having big galas or whatever. Trans people are suffering here day by day but sometimes it feels like KC just doesn't get that the work isn't over. It's frustrating.
tr: I know the feeling.
Shawna: I bet.
tr: It sounds like you're internalizing a lot about their attitudes in the way you approach your life on a daily basis.
Shawna: Doesn't everybody? If they think you're just a dumb hot tranny sex worker that will do just about anything for the money, at some point it makes sense to play that part no matter how much I hate it.
I guess that's really what it is. No matter what kind of fabulous work I do every day, it feels like my work is never enough. But my body is worth their money and attention somehow, so I make money from that because I can even though it wears on my brain and my heart.
Emphasis to the last paragraph was added with Shawna's permission. I am heartbroken that she continues to struggle here in Kansas City, even as many of my own TGNC brothers and sisters make progress out from beneath their respective gender binaries into full, productive lives.
I want to thank Shawna (thanks, boo! <3) for sharing her story with me and also for allowing me to share it with the internet in turn.
We'll have commentary up on questions like the economic situation facing trans* people in the coming days at trans.report. Stay tuned.